Personality Tests for Salesforce Selection: Worth a Fresh Look

By Adler, Seymour | Review of Business, Summer-Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Personality Tests for Salesforce Selection: Worth a Fresh Look


Adler, Seymour, Review of Business


What personality traits predict success in sales? This question has been a focus of discussion since the systematic study of sales effectiveness first began early in the century (Oschrin, 1918). Sales managers seem to have always nurtured the hope of finding quick, inexpensive and accurate personality tests to use in salesforce selection. Unfortunately, the research literature has not supported that optimism. In an article that had a strong impact on selection research and practice for the past quarter-century, Guion and Gottier (1965) reviewed the empirical evidence across employment contexts. Based on generally weak criterion-related validity, they concluded that personality tests have in fact little to no value as employee selection instruments.

Practitioners apparently agree with this scientific assessment. Surveys of general employment practices consistently show that personality tests are used less frequently in evaluating job candidates than are interviews, work samples, mental abilities tests, medical/drug screens, and background investigations (Bureau of National Affairs, 1988). These general trends appear true for salesforce selection practices as well. In a national survey of 10,000 sales and marketing managers, respondents overwhelmingly reported feeling that basic aptitude and personality tests are unable to predict who will succeed in sales (Granger, 1988).

Research Findings

From broad surveys to those that focused specifically on salesforce selection, it appears that personality tests are used sparingly in salesforce selection. This limited use is consistent with the research literature on predictors of sales performance.

Ford, Walker, Churchill and Hartley (1986) conducted a statistical analysis of all studies appearing between 1918 and 1982 that examined the relationship between biographical characteristic, psychological characteristics, and sales performance. Only personal history and family background accounted for a significant amount of variation in general sales success. At best, a few personality variables were weakly related to success; most showed no relationship. As a class, personality factors were less predictive of sales performance than were biographical, cognitive or skill factors.

This was also the conclusion of another exhaustive review of the relevant research (Comer & Dubinsky, 1985): "At least for the variables studied-physical characteristics, mental abilities, personality characteristics, and experience/background factors are poor predictors of sales success."

Yet, in the past few years, some emerging evidence suggests that we may need to take a fresh look at the potential value of personality measures in salesforce selection. As in other areas of research on personality and organizational behavior (Adler & Weiss, 1988), the role of personality tests in sales selection has, upon closer scrutiny, really not been carefully evaluated. Existing research practice has consistently ignored some fundamental principles of effective selection testing. The design of a sound system for selecting salespeople should begin with a clear understanding of the factors that comprise effective sales performance, developed through job analysis research. Equipped with an understanding of the traits required to succeed on the job, one can then move on to identify those tests that most accurately measure these target traits. Tett, Jackson and Rothstein (1991) have empirically demonstrated how personality tests used in selection programs that are based on initial job analysis research tend to be significantly more accurate in predicting success on the job.

Yet, all too often, salesforce selection incorporates personality tests that are presumed to measure traits that are assumed to lead to success. In fact, the vast majority (39 of 46) of published studies of personality test validity reviewed by Tett et al. (1991) report no job analysis research whatsoever. …

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